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I've talked with people around the world about how they use web forms, and every time I do, I asked them all similar question: How many of you use the mouse to move between form fields, and how many of you actually use your keyboard by hitting the Tab key? Usually, and this isn't a scientific response, 60% of people say they use their keyboard to tab between input fields. Whatever the real number is, the fact is there's a lot of people out there hitting Tab to move between the fields in the form. As a result, it's something we need to take into account when we lay out all of things we're putting on a form.
So let's see what a problem could be with tabbing behavior. When we look at the Office Depot site, we see again, a two-column layout. Now as people move between these, the first tab will jump you over here, then you'll be moving through here, then you'll be bopped over to the left, finally jumping all the way up to a small checkbox on the right only to make your way down again over left, right, up, down, you get the idea This form really starts to jump all over the place when somebody uses their Tab key to move between it.
It's jarring and you don't have a sense of where you're in the path to completion. Remember, the path to completion is all about letting people know where they are, and how much more progress they have to go to. Seeing your screen shoot up and then shoot down as you hit the Tab key and move between columns isn't a great way to orient people in order to give them confidence that they're making forward progress. Now luckily, Office Depot redesigned their site and they came back with another two column grid. Sadly, this has the same issues. So for these reasons and for smaller screen devices, once again, I think it's a good idea to avoid two-column grid layouts for your forms.
Not only is tabbing behavior more difficult with it, but when you move to a smaller screen, the multicolumn effect has the same type of problems we saw earlier. Other things to account for when you think about how people tab through forms: When you code your forms, the tabindex attribute actually allows you to give a little bit of control to how people move through the fields, Which one is first; which one is second; which one is third. That said, the best way to do it is just literally to lay it out in source order that is the first input field is first, the second one is second, the third one is third Tabindex, while useful for shifting that order a bit through markup, isn't as reliable as source order, especially across lots of different devices.
And lastly, laying out your forms with the expectation that people will tab through them. In other words, avoiding these big page jumps can go a long way in keeping people focused and on task as they use their keyboards to navigate web forms.
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